No matter how the Islanders play Edmonton tonight, at the end of the game they will have played half their 2008-09 schedule and nestled themselves into 30th overall.
But this Race to the Lottery is by no means over -- and even if it were, our collective insecurity means we can still fear that somehow our lottery bounce will be stolen by the league, or Charles Wang will demand it be traded, or who knows-what-irrational fear. When your franchise was once "bought" by that Maurice Levy from "The Wire" -- whoops, wrong shyster -- no cruel twist of fate is unimaginable.
So what else could go wrong? What about the youth movement: What if all of the youngsters who were supposed to be mentored, groomed and evaluated this year turn into some such Tambellini? Could Bettman let us have Tavares, only to find the Designated Teenage Hype of 2008-09 would have no one to play with on the Island?
In short, not bloody likely. Though the Isles youngsters have had their share of setbacks, injuries and staggered development, a few of these guys appear to have the makings of real top-six assets. There might be no Jokinen or Bertuzzi here, but the good news is Garth Snow has the patience to wait and see if there is.
So let's look at what we have -- including the "young" 24-year-olds -- and let's rationalize why their numbers aren't yet savior-like:
|Josh Bailey (age 19)
Ah, Josh Bailey, the #9 pick. The we-coulda-had-Filatov/Schenn pick. The goalscoring has been slow -- really slow -- in coming. But in training camp, in his first weeks of action, and again in recent games he has demonstrated the hockey sense and spacial intelligence to be a guy who sees the ice well, can deliver a "Weight-like" pass and can smell offensive opportunity where others smell a dump-in. He's only 19 and 26 games into his career. And since by all accounts he is decidedly not a flaky character, there's no reason to expect those talents to be flushed down some Daigle-pipe.
| Kyle Okposo (age 20)
K.O., the U. of Minnesota-U.S. Junior-SoundTiger-Islander express story of 2007-08. Like Bailey, this season has been stalled some by injury, and his touch hasn't come as quickly as some hoped. But Okposo has shown speed with the puck and a willingness to use his body to win, protect or takeaway the puck. The instances of him checking someone off the puck have increased in recent weeks. The degree of his sniping touch is still undetermined, but the way he's whistled some tough-luck shots just wide of the post or just off a Snow-esque piece of goalie equipment makes me reasonably confident it will emerge.
|Frans Nielsen (age 24)
Frans Nielsen, the pride of Denmark. Another guy with underwhelming stats but whose injury this season has helped mask what was becoming a poor man's breakout campaign. He's no star in the making, but whereas last year he struck me as just a solid two-way guy, this season he was starting to show a degree of danger to his game to go with the defensive reliability. The night Devil Mike Mottau took him out, he was flying around the ice as the Islanders' only threat.
| Blake Comeau (22)
Blake Comeau, the prodigal son. Plus/Minus is a misleading, team-dependent stat, but Comeau's poor minus in limited action is not a fluke. If he has a deficiency -- other than the lack of "go" that distressed Scott "go-go" Gordon in training camp -- it's his defensive discipline. But he's young and he's built his stock a lot in two years' time: There's room for him to be a responsible cog yet. The fact he, Okposo and Mike Comrie have formed an exciting line for desperate Islander fan eyes bodes well, as does his scoring touch, which should return with regular playing time.
|Sean Bergenheim (24)
What to say about Sean Bergenheim? We know Teemu Selanne likes his skill. We know we like his skill -- when it's on display. But it's not always there, and his role (or his execution of his role) shifts from week to week. Maybe he's the victim of four coaches in four seasons, and some continuity will bring out regular 20-goal campaigns. He's no sniper, but the kid can finish, he has some moves, and he's good at banging and agitating. If he can avoid bad penalties and find consistency, the fact he's not a grade A "power forward" is no reason not to keep him around.
|Jeff Tambellini (age 24)
Tee hee, don't cringe: You knew he had to be mentioned. Jeff Tambellini, always a divisive topic among Islanders fans, was seen by Garth Snow as a scoring threat based on the reasonable extrapolation of his consistent top-tier scoring at the AHL level. But while 1 goal in 30 games has to be below the rate he'll eventually establish, he definitely looks more like a AAAA scorer.
Still, like Andy Hilbert (another divisive topic) before him, he could apply his skill and speed to be a reasonable depth part with some touch. Regardless, thanks to Snow's faith in him with the one-way, two-year deal, the Isles have another year and a half to discover if he's a late bloomer or a Justin Papineau.
There Was a Point to All This
So while this season is bare, the near-term cupboard isn't. None of these guys are lock-em-up foundations for a franchise, but at least a couple are the type of young talents that can be important pieces in the future.
The problem of injuries to Bailey, Okposo and Nielsen -- three guys who Snow hoped to not just groom but also rely on this season -- may provide the hidden bonus of sending the Isles firmly into lottery territory, where they can acquire the kind of top-end talent who will carry them on his back. In fact, the projection for these guys dictates the necessity of at least one genuine star to keep them from being overburdened.
Sitting in 30th sucks, it really does. But there are worse ways to land there, and if you can stomach the process, there just might be something really sweet waiting at the other end.